China looms so large in our consciousness today—and was so important to the United States even in the 1960s—that it is hard to believe Ted Kennedy's long and extraordinary life as a major American politician/statesman only took him there once. It is also difficult to fathom, especially for those of us who have devoted our lives to China, that Kennedy's fascinating 507-page memoir1 spends only one page on his involvement with China, and his biographers have barely mentioned the topic.
Yet, in the crucial period of 1966–79, as the American people were developing a new image of China and considering a new policy toward it, Ted Kennedy played a significant role, albeit one that is now little understood or remembered. That role partially played out in public, and some of it took place behind the scenes. I cannot give a comprehensive account of this story, which would make a splendid master's thesis for a budding political scientist. But I know a good deal about it, since I helped advise Ted on China during this period. Although memory fades on certain details after almost half a century, many vivid events seem unforgettable.